Staff Q&A with Anthony Elms

The Whitney Biennial, one of the most highly regarded art shows in the world, has featured an array of work from some of the country’s most provocative, influential, or little-known artists, including feminist sculptor Kiki Smith (2002), performance and installation artist Terence Koh (2004), and painter Robert Bechtle (2008).

Curators of these wide-ranging shows have included people who work at the contemporary art museum, as well as those based outside of the Whitney.

For the 2014 Biennial, which runs from March 7 through May 25, the Whitney looked outside its walls for three curators, including Anthony Elms, an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Elms, along with Michelle Grabner, an artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA, were instructed to work separately on selecting artists for the Biennial. Each curator oversees one floor at the Biennial, located in the Whitney Museum’s Madison Avenue location in New York City.

“Just the fact that they went to three people outside the institution, we can say they were looking for different people to bring their energy from elsewhere into the Whitney,” says Elms.

The list of artists on the 2014 roster includes performers, as well as painters, filmmakers, and writers—and those who move fluidly between disciplines. Three of the nearly 100 artists included in the show are from PennDesign: Terry Adkins, professor of fine arts; Ken Lum, professor and director of the Fine Arts Undergraduate Program; and Joshua Mosley, professor and chair of Fine Arts.

Elms has worked as co-curator of the Biennial since the fall of 2012, while balancing his duties at the ICA. Here, he not only curates shows, but also oversees the publishing of all printed materials associated with ICA exhibits. Before he landed at the ICA, Elms worked at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago and as the curator of WhiteWalls, an alternative space for artists’ publication projects founded in the 1970s. He also helped to organize the 2011 PERFORMA visual art performance biennial in New York.

“I love the projects I’ve lined up for the Whitney, but I also love some of the projects that Michelle and Stuart have lined up,” Elms says. “I’m excited to finally be able to spend time with these things, to actually love the things themselves.”

The Current sat down with Elms to talk about the challenges of three curators working separately on one show, his approach to his floor at the Biennial, and the significance of the Biennial in the art world.

Q: How were you selected for the role as co-curator for the Whitney Biennial?
A: They invited a small group of people to write one-page proposals saying how they would approach the Whitney Biennial and in this prompt, they mentioned that they were thinking of going with three curators and asking the three curators to work independently. … It was not a long process, and so I spun around in circles and tried to figure out what I could write to propose and then I finally did submit a proposal. A month after that, they called me in for an interview, and at the end they said they were interested in me being one of the three. It was another month-and-a-half before I found out who the other two were and then they made it public a month after that.

Q: Were you familiar with the two other curators?
A: I spent more than 15 years in Chicago, and Michelle Grabner is a very strong presence in Chicago. We had never collaborated on anything, but we had been bumping into each other and seeing each other at things for a decade. Stuart [Comer] I had never met, but we have friends in common and I was aware of his work and had respected his work at the Tate [Modern in London].

Q: What is the particular challenge in the three of you working independently?
A: Certainly, there’s been a lot of coordination amongst us. It’s not a big building. It’s not a tiny one, but it’s a mid-sized museum, and so there are very real limitations: First of all, who’s working on what floor and what spaces. There’s a dedicated screening room but only one of them and so we all have to share that. There’s no easy way to foresee performance, so you have to talk things out scheduling-wise. We are doing one catalog and one ad campaign, so we all have to come to some agreement on those issues. On top of that, I think we were very conscious of not wanting to overtax artists and we wanted to keep aware of where each other seemed to be going, so all three of us didn’t do a studio visit with someone. It’s not as if we knew everybody the other  person was visiting, but we kept our ears open to who each other was interested in. I think we had a couple overlaps on our list of people and so in those cases we would talk things out.

Q: Talk specifically about your approach to the Biennial.
A: Some things are still under wraps. I can say that I wrote a one-page proposal that isn’t very large; I did not propose any particular artists in my proposal. It’s November of 2012 that this was public, so even though I had started doing studio visits with people with an ear to knowing that I was one of the curators, it hadn’t been made public. We have to have, just because of museum deadlines, the large portion of the choices made by the summer so you can work on the catalog and get a general idea of what shipping might cost. There’s not a lot of time for thinking this through. I can’t say that I thought, ‘My proposal’s perfect, this is what I’m going to fulfill.’ I do know that one of the earlier meetings I had with them, I said, ‘Well, I’d be surprised if I asked more
than 24 or 25 artists,’ and I think my list of people I’m working with is 24. I do know there were just ways in which I went with first thought-best thought and things started tumbling into place after that. There was a lot of looseness and openness in my proposal, but a couple of the ideas did not ever leave my mind and did make it into the final show. I love a lot more than 24 artists and made tough choices.

Q: Has the approach been different than how you would approach a show at the ICA? Is there a coherent theme to the Biennial or is there less of a narrative?
A: My selection for the Biennial is not a theme show; there might be three themes that interlock and overlap a little bit, but it is a little bit looser than a lot of shows that we do [at the ICA]. Some people like to see the Biennial as the best artists working today or the most important artists, and I guess I thought of it more as what seems pertinent now or what seems relevant now—either who’s making great work right now and has been either overlooked or really seems to be important to a lot of other artists, curators, and writers, or who seems to be working in a way that’s indicative of what people are working on now. From that, I looked for objects and gestures and ways of working by artists I fell in love with and thought were really strong. There are some artists who I trusted on things they’re working on and said, ‘Give me what’s new.’ There are other artists for whom I knew a piece and thought it was perfect. I fell in love with a couple of other artists’ works and asked if they would be OK with those being in. There wasn’t one way in which I approached the artists.

Q: What did you include in your Biennial selections?
A: I have video, performance, a composer, a sound installation, sculpture, painting, drawings, a piece of sculpture that looks like furniture, some in-between things. There are choreographers. There’s even poetry. There are things that are strictly archival, so when it was things I liked and when I looked at what people were doing, I pulled in from that. I also just pulled in from the breadth that I thought made sense from what I see out and about.

Q: How important is the Biennial, not only to those in the art world, but to the general public?
A: The show’s been going on so long that I think the perception of it changes and comes and goes and wavers in and out. People have seen it as more of a marker of where the market’s going. There have been years when it’s been seen as being very anti-market and pro-scholarship or pro-critical thinking, and some years in which it’s seen as being the discovery of the new. I think this year we’ve all gravitated toward older artists. We’ve also gravitated toward people who, even if they work specifically in a discipline like painting or film, have some sort of dual existence that comes into play. I think people saw the 2012 [Biennial] as being a statement of the importance of performances and various performance tactics by artists and really showcasing how that’s becoming more of an established fact both outside and within institutions. I’m not sure what the significance of this year’s might be because there’s three of us going our own slightly different routes, but maybe within the Whitney’s choice to pick three people, we can see that looking at curating is an important part of what happens in art today. I think also, reaching out to three people is a recognition of just how sprawling and complex the contemporary art world is now. There is no dominant direction.

Q: This will be the last Biennial in the current building on Madison Avenue before it moves in 2015 to its new downtown
home. What’s the significance of that?
A: I can’t separate the fact that I finally get a chance to work in that building from the fact that this is the last Biennial there. It’s also my last chance to curate in that building, probably. Some of the artists that I am working with love that building, too, and they suggested things that tie closely either with the actual facts or history of the building or they are just figures that say something about the history of the Whitney and that location.

Q: What are you working on here at the ICA?
A: I am the receiving curator for Kara Walker, who is curating a show for us that opens Feb. 12. I’m also doing a handful of projects for our collectively organized ‘ICA @50’ show that happens over the spring and summer. I’m already loosely thinking about and working on a show for 2015 at the ICA. Luckily I get nervous if I sit still for too long and I like thinking about these things.

Anthony Elms